Wednesday, April 13, 2011


My dad loved trains.  And he loved to drive. When he bought our 1935 Ford, my brother and I were little kids in the back seat, and on Sundays we’d drive for miles up the Pacific Coast Highway just for the scenery.  No freeways then, just a wonderful two-lane highway and hardly any cars on the road.  If we got lucky we’d see a lot of trains, and the Southern Pacific still had many steam locomotives on the line.  In some spots, the highway ran right next to the rail line.  Passenger trains were no fun because they were pulled by the new, streamlined diesel locomotives.  The magic moment came when we’d spot smoke up ahead.  “We’ll catch him,” my dad would promise as the car surged ahead.  I still remember the thrill of pulling alongside one of those huge, fire-breathing monsters -- so close that I was engulfed by the awesome force of that fierce, black beast with the stacks belching smoke and the drive rods flying back and forth.  “That’s a six-eight wheeler,” my dad would shout.  The drive wheels were bigger than our car.  And all this raw power close enough so that I could see the engineer plainly.  My dad said if I waved, he’d wave back.  And he did!  All this time my mother was urging him to slow down.  No dice.  “He’s got a grade crossing up ahead,” my dad would yell, “You’ll get to hear the whistle.”  I not only heard it, I saw the whistle blow.  Two looong wails, and a couple of short toots.  What a treat!  My dad also wanted to be the first car at the crossing when the gates came down.  So there  we’d be, just yards away when the engine thundered by, and the boxcars came clanking and rumbling behind.  Nothing he liked better than a long, long freight so he could read all the boxcars.  (This was before Amtrak and globalization brought us boring, anonymous containers.)  “See that B&O,” he’d shout above the roar, ”That’s Baltimore and Ohio.  Came right by my house when I was a boy in Cleveland.  Look!  New York Central.  All the way from the East coast.”  I grew up with boxcar geography.  At home, our L.A. neighborhood was on the right side of the tracks – but just barely.  Two blocks down, there was a light-rail line that serviced the warehouses along Sepulveda Blvd., the main drag.  The workhorse down there was a klunky yellow diesel-electric switch engine – a terrible comedown from the charging iron horse of the high-speed rail.  And what’s worse, it had an obnoxious, clanging bell that we could hear clear down at our house.  But it hauled all the same boxcars and we could see them for just a short walk.  More boxcar geography.  “Look,” my dad pointed, “Louisville and Nashville, I’ve been there.”  He sounded proud.  Denver and Rio Grande, Illinois Central, Canadian Pacific, Midland Valley Railroad, Erie Line, New York, New Haven and Hartford.  Before I was old enough to leave home, I got some travel stickers and stuck them on my guitar case so it looked as though I’d been to far-flung places.  When I actually went to far-flung places, it wasn’t by train.  So I wrote a love song to those old steam locomotives. 

COME BACK CASEY JONES by the Demonstrators (My hand-picked studio band) featuring John Schlocker on banjo, the marvelous Roy Zimmerman on vocals, and Marty Rifkin with some extraordinarily nifty dobro.